Work on the county’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is taking place out of the public view, but in two weeks, citizens will know how the Board of Commissioners has reconciled the nearly $2.8 million gap between requested expenditures and anticipated revenue.
The $2,747,549 funding shortfall was presented to the commissioners in their last public meeting on the budget–a work session on March 25 held in the Grand Jury Room at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
If the patterns of the past are being repeated, the five Commissioners have been meeting in the weeks following in small numbers–less than the three members that would make a quorum–with Finance Director Wes Geddings, County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko and possibly others.
On May 26, at 6:30 p.m., the Commissioners are scheduled to unveil the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, letting citizens know if the proposed 3 percent increase in water and sewer rates has been approved, if other fees for county services have been changed, and–most importantly–if the county’s millage rate will be increased, maintained, or even rolled back.
“A rate increase has not been discussed, but it could be,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis is quoted as saying by Mike Sprayberry, a correspondent for The Oconee Leader, one of the county’s two weekly newspapers, in that paper’s May 8 edition (page 7).
In fact, as Davis well knows, a property tax rate increase was presented to the Board as an option at its planning meeting on Jan. 22.
Commissioner Jim Luke said at that meeting he would support an increase in property taxes--if the money were earmarked for specific needs, such as for road construction and improvements. None of the other commissioners joined Luke in stating supporting for a tax increase.
But County Administrative Officer Benko brought up the possibility of a rate increase again at the budget work session on March 25.
Benko said the Board could avoid a rate increase if it wanted to keep things at a level state, that is, not respond to the requests for new funding. “The only other choice would be a millage rate increase if you felt there was something definitely needed,” he said.
Davis On Increase
Davis himself mentioned a rate increase at the April 7 meeting of the BOC in the middle of his monologue explaining his objections to the decision of the BOC to turn down project framework agreements for two projects on Daniells Bridge Road,
“We may have to look at a some future millage rate increase because we don’t know what may be coming down the pike for our needs,” he said.
Davis attributed the discussion of a rate increase to Luke. Davis didn’t acknowledge the condition that Luke had set–that any increase had to be earmarked for a project the Board deemed necessary.
In the Sprayberry report in the Leader, Davis is quoted as saying that a tax increase “would be an option.”
The Board has the choice of reducing the millage rate to offset the expected 6 percent increase in the value of real property, letting the millage rate stand at its current rate of 6.686, or increasing the millage rate.
The first option keeps revenue even. The second results in a 6 percent increase in revenue. The third would produce more than the 6 percent increase.
March 25 Meeting
Sprayberry didn’t attend either the Jan. 22 or the March 25 meeting.
In fact, Sarah Bell and I were the only persons present at the work session other than county employees and the commissioners themselves. The county did not make a video recording of the session.
At that meeting, Finance Director Geddings began by reviewing the requests from the elected officials and department heads as well as the sources of revenue.
Among the new expenditures are $450,000 for retirement of the $10.4 million revenue bond the county sold in 2012 to finance the incentive program to bring Caterpillar to the county. That amount will be $700,000 in budgets through 2034.
Health Care Costs
The budget reflects $500,000 in employee health insurance costs, on top of the current $2.5 million.
Administrative Officer Benko said he had been talking with Rick Waller, whose agency handles the county’s insurance policy, and Benko said he was hoping the increase would be reduced to somewhere near $250,000.
Waller is the appointed chairman of the county’s Industrial Development Authority.
As of this time last year, the county had 357 employees, with 227 of those being regular county full-time employees and 37 part-time. The remainder were elected officials, shared positions with other agencies, or employees of the county’s Utility Department, which is separately funded.
The budget requests submitted to the Board ask for 16 new full-time positions and seven new part-time positions.
Vehicles And Judges
Department heads and elected officials requested nine new vehicles and five pieces of machinery as well as $200,000 in computer equipment.
The budget also also includes $118,000 for the new superior court judge authorized by the legislature.
Geddings told the Board the budget includes $500,000 in requests for capital improvements.
And Geddings said the Board has to decide how much, if any, it wants to take from its budget surplus to cover costs.
Last year, the county budgeted to take $777,000 from the fund balance, but it ended up not using that money and will put $250,000 back into the balance this year.
The most time-consuming topic at the March 25 meeting was the possibility of granting pay increases to county employees.
In each of the last two years, county employees received a 3 percent cost of living allowance (COLA).
Chairman Davis raised the possibility of giving an increase again this year, though that adjustment was not part of the proposed budget before the Board.
Geddings said a true COLA would be about 1 percent this year, given the low rate of inflation.
But Davis pushed for a 3 percent increase and said he favored at least some of that being merit pay.
Geddings explained the cost of pay increases in the video below.
A 3 percent increase would add another $345,000 to the budget requests.
Water And Sewer
Utility Department Director Chris Thomas has asked the Board to approve 3 percent increases in both water and sewer rates beginning July 1.
Those rate increases were not discussed at the March 25 meeting, suggesting comfort on the Board with the increases.
Water and sewer rates have been increasing over the last five years as the county pays off debt for its infrastructure projects, including construction of the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir in southeastern Walton County.
The rate increases are born only by water and sewer customers, though the county now is arguing that the Hard Labor Creek project in particular is not to satisfy residential customers but to lure industry to the area.
Video Of Work Session
The full video of the work session on March 25 is below.
The Grand Jury Room is small, and the table around which the commissioners and their invited guests sit is separated from the area open to the public.
In the video, Finance Director Geddings is seated with his back to the camera. Administrative Officer Jeff Benko is seated to the camera’s left. County Clerk Jane Greathouse is across from the camera.
Around the table, moving to the right of Greathouse, are commissioners Mark Saxon, John Daniell, Davis, Luke and Bubber Wilkes.